By Leonard Klady

Confessions of a Film Festival Junkie: Shape of Water, The Florida Project

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s enchanting fairytale that won the top prize in Venice, could well garner the audience award that concludes the Toronto International Film Festival each year. It’s another work of extraordinary imagination, and despite a few graphic and shocking sequences, a disarming, emotional tale suitable for all ages.

Mute Eliza (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner at a high security government lab during the Cold War. The installation gets a new “asset” and Eliza winds up seeing something she shouldn’t. The research subject is hybrid man-amphibian resembling the 1950s Creature from the Black Lagoon. While the G-Man jailer (Michael Shannon) uses brute force to suppress the being, the woman treats him compassionately in a variation on Beauty and the Beast. The Shape of Water is dreamlike, referencing not only the Technicolor palette of the 1940s and 1950s but also the kind of programmer musical studios could have cranked out in the 1940s. Only a very cold heart would not respond to this material.

As the festival winds down, the weather is sunny and warm. Despite Toronto becoming a city for the very well off, it was shocking to see homeless sleeping in the middle of downtown streets atop a warm grate.

TIFF is evolving, too, but no one knows what changes are in the wind. It’s difficult to pinpoint how scaling back the program translates into the overall experience. Nonetheless, Toronto’s program feels less exhaustive than in the past, while crowds seem larger. The traditional Tuesday exodus of industry and press seemed to pass a day later this year, but it’s clear the event has a long way to go if it wants pros to stay beyond opening weekend.

One of the delights of any film festival is stumbling into a screening and finding a gem. This year, that was The Florida Project. I was in line for a French film when it was cancelled and this was its replacement. A fellow queuer said, it’s the new Sean Baker, and people love it. I’d seen Baker’s earlier MTV series “Greg the Bunny” and his L.A.-by-iPhone Tangerine but they didn’t prepare me for this: a documentary-like view of poor people who inhabit a residential motel in Orlando, only a few miles from Disney World. The leading character is a 6-year-old girl named Moonee with a wicked streak of mischief that infects her two friends. The adults are consistently down on their luck, including Moonee’s mother, who sometimes sells perfume at hotel entrances to pay the weekly rent.

Willem Dafoe’s low-key performance as the motel’s kindly manager grounds the film in fiction. Rich on incident and observation rather than plot, The Florida Project keeps you engaged and connected to the characters.

Another surprise was the French film Les Gardiennes, another of my wild stabs in the dark when without a scheduled film. A young woman secures a job on a farm during the First World War; it’s harvest time and apart from the very old and the very young, the able-bodied men are at the front. It’s another low-key experience, but precisely observed. The creation of bygone times is exquisitely rendered. Later I realized that the director Xavier Beauvois had previously made another exceptional film, Of Gods and Men, about French monks in a remote area of Algeria that find themselves caught up in civil war and forces that would challenge their faith.

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“Most of these women were in their early twenties. Most of them refused to go any further with him, but a few went to dinner, or to some sort of casting situation, or to someplace private… if the stories were just about some crazed sex addict who approaches thousands of women on the street trying to get laid, I wouldn’t be posting this now. I don’t want to be attacking every Hollywood douchebag who hits on countless women. That type of behavior isn’t cool, but I think it’s important to separate douchebaggery from any kind of sexual coercion. But the women I talked to who DID go someplace private with Toback, told stories that were worse than the women only accosted on the street… So I did what I could do in my impotent state – for over twenty years now, I’ve been bringing up James Toback every chance I could in groups of people. I couldn’t stop him, but I could warn people about him… I’ve been hoping the Weinstein/O’Reilly stuff would bring this vampire into the light (him and a couple others, frankly). So I was happy today to wake up to this story in the L. A. Times.”
~ James Gunn

“BATTLE OF THE SEXES: Politics and queerness as spectacle/spectacle as politics and queerness. Pretty delightful, lovely, erotic. A-

“Not since EASY A and CABARET have I seen Emma Stone give a real sense of her range. Here, she has pathos and interiority and desire. I love the cinematography and the ways in which the images of the tennis icons are refracted and manipulated via various surfaces/mediators. Also, wild how a haircut is one of the most erotic scenes in cinema this year. Spine tinglingly tactile that feels refreshing. Proof that *cough* you don’t need to be ~graphic/explicit~ to be erotic *cough*. Also, it made me want to get into tennis. Watching it, at least.

“There are interesting touches and intimations as to the cinematic nature of sports, & unpacking the formal approach of broadcasting sports.Also, I was here for Sarah Silverman smoking. And also, hi Mickey Sumner!! It’s a really interesting film about the ways in which public spectacle is never apolitical, and how spectacle is prone to assignation.

“There’s this one other scene from BATTLE OF THE SEXES that I love, and it’s the one in the bar. You see Billie looking after Marilyn as she dances. Through a crowd. There’s a paradoxical closeness and distance between them. In the purple light, and the kitschy decor, everything is distorted. But Billie catches a glance and you can feel the nervous swell inside.”
~ Kyle Turner